Mind your language

King Charles’s head

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

‘It has become something of a King Charles’ head, or should that be a King Charles’s head?’ said my husband, laughing, as though he had made a joke. By ‘it’ he meant the apostrophe, which forces its way into any discussion of grammar, just as the head of the King and Martyr forced itself into the memorandum that Mr Dick, the amiable lunatic, was attempting to write to the Lord Chancellor in David Copperfield (1850).

Looking through the book, I found the exact phrase once, when Mr Dick mentions to David that ‘the mistake was made of putting some of the trouble out of King Charles’s head into my head’. So that is the original
form, even though the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a 20th-century example of ‘King Charles’ head’.


I think the apostrophe (one of the simplest elements in grammar to deploy) exerts such mesmeric fascination because, after plural nouns ending in —s, it merely signifies a possessive and is not reflected in speech. The history is complicated, but in Old English (before the Conquest) —es was a singular genitive termination. This we still find in Chaucer, who writes of a cattes skin and a hogges turd, with each animal becoming two syllables in the possessive case.

After these came to be pronounced cats and hogs, ​an​ apostrophe was used to indicate the lost vowel. In the plural, the genitive never used to end in –s. Only after grammatical case endings were lost, and –s became the termination for plurals in any grammatical case, was the bare apostrophe added after the –s.

But in St Thomas’s Hospital, Thomas’s, as a singular noun, is pronounced with one syllable more than Thomas (like glass’s or fish’s, or like the Court of St James’s). There can be no doubt of the spelling.

As if in some school exercise, a strange-looking use of the apostrophe emerged last week, when the Queen gave the Royal Lancers a new title: ‘Queen Elizabeths’ Own’. Here Elizabeths is (the rather rare) plural, standing for the Queen and her late mother. So the apostrophe tacked on is correct. The regiment will no doubt willingly defend it.

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